The scenic drives through the Rocky Mountains can be humbling, awe-inspiring, and diverse. One hour, you could be taking in the snowcapped peaks and alpine lakes near Estes Park and Colorado’s Front Range. Then, a few hours and some winding roads later, you could find yourself in an arid landscape, more reminiscent of the southwest, driving between the sheer cliff face and stacked red-rock formations. If you haven’t had the pleasure of driving through the Rockies, it is something to add to your must-do list.
The prominent, 3,000 mile-long, Rocky Mountain range passes through six different U.S. states: Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico. Trekking the Continental Divide Trail or countless other trails through the range will offer awe-inspiring views in near solitude, but with the U.S. Highway system, postcard-picturesque views of the Rockies can be accessible to anyone. Since the early 1900s, and the advent of the automobile on American life, a drive through the Rockies has been a staple American road trip destination.
Even driving through the Rockies on I-70, and still making time on your cross-country road trip, is a site to behold. However, these six scenic drives offer views of some truly incredible landscapes. Most scenic drives trough the mountains feature a number of areas to pull off to take in the most breathtaking sites as well, so there’s no need to worry about missing that perfect shot for social media. Before packing the car, it’s important to check both expected weather conditions and the state or National Parks Service website to ensure your preferred highway destination is open for public use. Most of the listed roads are only open seasonally, and even then, maybe closed due to rockslides, wildfires, and treacherous weather conditions.
Kati and I have spent many hours exploring the Rockies. We have gone back time and time again. And plan on returning. With Covid, the Great American Road Trip is alive and well and the Rockies is a great place to experience it. Get ready for some great adventures.
Trail Ridge Road (Colorado)
The historic Trail Ridge Road runs from Estes Park, near Fort Collins, Colorado, to Grand Lake, on the Western side of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 48-mile drive takes motorists up to 12,183 feet at its highest point. Along the way, they’ll witness the landscape and environment change with the altitude, as the aspen and ponderosa pine forests give way to the alpine tundra above tree line. Anyone traversing the route should be ready for their ears to pop, as motorists gain more than 4,000 feet in elevation in an incredibly short period of time.
When it was first built in the 1930s, the Rocky Mountain News called Trail Ridge Road a “scenic wonder of the world,” and to this day travelers take full advantage of the views of Rocky Mountain National Park. Along the way on this scenic drive through the Rockies, tourists can see glaciers, lava cliffs, elk herds, and panoramic overlooks of snowcapped peaks and alpine forests.
Million Dollar Highway (Colorado)
The Million Dollar Highway takes drivers and riders through the middle of the San Juan Mountain Range, near Durango, Colorado, in the state’s southwest. A large portion of the road is “outside,” meaning with no guardrails, and can be vertigo-inducing for some drivers not used to mountain driving. One explanation for the name is that an early traveler of the highway stated it was so intimidating that he’d never drive it again, even if he were paid a million dollars.
The San Juan Mountains offer some incredible views that are distinctly different than other ranges in the Rockies, and more reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. The area is highly mineralized and was a huge gold and silver mining area in the west’s early history. Along the route, travelers can still see abandoned mining towns, camps, and equipment, while passing through and ending up in small modern mountain towns.
Going-to-the-Sun Road (Montana)
One of our favorites is the Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Going-to-the-Sun Road is Located within Montana’s Glacier National Park. This 50-mile scenic Rocky Mountain Drive winds through the landscape of one of the U.S.’s most rugged and wild national parks. While the elevation along the road only tops out at 6,646 feet, the views along Going-to-the-Sun are truly epic. Sights include alpine valleys, glacial waterfalls, and vibrant wildflowers.
During the drive, travelers will see impressive glaciers, beautiful valleys, cascading waterfalls, towering mountains, and colorful wildflowers. It’s also very common to see wildlife like mountain goats and bighorn sheep in their natural and relatively undisturbed natural habitat.
The road is noted as one of the most difficult to plow in the spring, with snowdrifts regularly exceeding 80 feet! Going-to-the-Sun Road is usually open from June to October but has opened as late as July 13 in recent years. Before hopping in the car, it’s essential to check the weather, especially for this scenic drive.
Beartooth Highway (Montana and Wyoming)
Another favorite of ours is the Beartooth Highway. At 68 miles long, Beartooth Highway winds its way through southwest Montana and northwest Wyoming. At its western terminus, travelers will find themselves at the scenic and infamous Yellowstone National Park. The area it passes through is known as the Beartooth Corridor, and it also crosses over Beartooth Pass at 10,947 feet above sea level.
Along this scenic drive through the Rockies, you’ll witness an incredible variety of terrain, including dense, lush forests and alpine tundra near tree line. For road trippers going east to west, Beartooth Highway is commonly rated as one of the best drives into Yellowstone and is sure to prepare travelers for the staggering views inside of the park.
Teton Scenic Byway (Idaho)
Located in eastern Idaho, the Teton Scenic Byway offers majestic views of Teton Valley along its 69-mile length. As they drive, the unique and distinctive Teton Mountain Range dominates the eastern skyline, with snowcapped, blue granite mountains jutting into the sky above lush rangelands and farms.
Historically, the area along the Teton Scenic Byway was once used as a rendezvous point for mountain men and French fur traders to meet in the 1800s. Some areas are also historically noted as points of conflict between early traders and Native Americans.
Dinosaur Diamond Scenic and Historic Byway (Utah and Colorado)
Dinosaur Diamond Scenic and Historic Byway highlight both the history and natural beauty of the region. Evidence of both Native Americans and prehistoric dinosaurs can be witnessed along its path. At 512 miles, this scenic drive in Utah and Colorado dwarfs the others on this list, but drivers can choose to complete the most appealing or convenient portion.
In addition to protected historical sites, travelers can witness a staggering number of geological features in the region. The byway passes within close proximity of Dinosaur National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, and Colorado National Monument.
Overall the Rockies is wide, vast, and incredibly beautiful and would probably take a lifetime to explore them all. There are many highways and byways that will not disappoint and whether you are a couple, family, or solo, head out and explore the Rocky Mountains.
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